8 steps to getting company culture right

I’m afraid I can’t claim to be a proven authority on this subject. In fact the whole reason I reassessed our culture recently was that I’d done such a good job of assing it up in the first place. You see two years ago I took the decision to move to London. After all, that’s where most of our clients were. And I had a very simple plan for keeping the culture plate spinning in Leicester. Pop up twice a week, be generally amazing, and then get back down to London to bring on more clients.

It didn’t work. Two days just wasn’t enough. Culture isn’t a plate that needs an occasional spin to keep it from tumbling, it’s a lump of clay on a pottery wheel that requires constant contact or it’ll fly off in every direction, which is exactly what happened. Well, towards London, Leeds and Birmingham to be exact. You see, having moved to London myself it then became very difficult to stop other people from moving too, and very soon we had about half the company working in various studies and bedrooms from around the country. Sure, Thursdays and Fridays saw everyone back in the office, but as we’ve established, two days a week does not cut the custard.

Anyway, long story short, over a period of 18 months, while revenue growing by 100% and generally clients receiving a better service than ever, our culture had all but disintegrated which meant that the company was, in spite of all our progress, dangling by a thread. So a decision was made. A big one. The main office would relocate to London and all but one person will work from there full time. We would continue to have a strong presence (and a small office) in Leicester, but our home would be in London.

It’s been difficult, really difficult, but the fact that that people are willing to pack up their homes and travel to a new city is, I believe, testament to the culture we once had and are now busy rebuilding.

So in truth this is very much a do-as-I-say, rather than do-as-I-did kind of article. A list of all the things I got so unforgivably wrong but am now busy fixing, combined with ideas I’ve taken from some of the most culturally astonishing companies in the world.

What is culture?

Before we go any further, it’s worth clarifying what we mean by company culture as many people (wrongly) view it as something vague and unimportant. There are lots of definitions but I look at it like this – your company culture is the collection of attributes that first made you a successful business. The vast majority of new businesses die in the first three years, so look at the founding members of the team and work out what it was that made these weirdos get through it where others would have failed. If you are to scale, the traits of these few need to become the culture of the whole.

How is it created?

Not quickly or easily, that’s for sure, but here are a few tips that I wish I’d received 4 years ago:

  1. Write it down – the notion of culture may seem fluffy but it’s going to be the single most important long term asset of the business, so write it down. It exists to set expectations for future employees and to act as a constant point of reference whenever you’re struggling to remember what really matters.
  2. But also let it slowly emerge by itself – yes define it, but recognise that for a while it will continue to evolve. Culture is not something that you can artificially adopt, it is something you already are, so you need to observe the business over time and see what emerge as the most valuable traits of those that really drive the business forward.
  3. Get the input of the team – if you want people to be it, they must believe it, and that means it must be as much a reflection of their own values as well as yours. Of course it’s possible that someone may just not fit with the culture, and if that’s the case then I’m afraid they need to go.
  4. Limit the values – for each value you add, you are diluting the impact of those already on the list. I would recommend restricting yours to 10 at the absolute most (as you’ll see below, I still have some pruning to do!).
  5. Understand that once it’s finally ready, this is the one thing that cannot change – Strategy may change. Your products and services may change. But the one thing that must remain a constant is your culture.
  6. Publish it – even before it’s ready, publish it. Just like I am now. Not only will it force you to improve it significantly (you should have seen it two weeks ago), but once it’s out there then you’re more committed than ever to making sure it sticks.
  7. Hire and fire by it – when you’re recruiting, it doesn’t matter how talented the candidate may be, if they are not a cultural fit then they cannot be hired. No exceptions. Undermine it once and it all its meaning has gone.
  8. Keep working at it – for this piece of paper to become something real it needs your daily attention. And under no circumstances (at least as a small company like ours) can you allow your team to fragment. Culture cannot be built over Skype.

So here it is. As I said, I know it will change further over the course of 2015 but by the end of the year we will have our cultural framework and it will be absolutely, completely, 100% set in stone. Probably.


Inbound Culture Document
The 11 things that make an Inbounder


1. Deliver the ultimate Inbound experience

Every day we have countless interactions with people outside Inbound and it is the sum of these interactions that make our true identity. We must be enthusiastic, professional and highly responsive at every encounter. Whether it’s the way we answer the phone, how we meet clients or the way we treat suppliers, we must always ask ourselves “What would that person say about Inbound? Would they rush to recommend us or would we seem like just another digital marketing agency?”

This Inbound experience is best delivered in person or over the phone. Email, while often necessary, can be highly inefficient and even dangerous as the content has no tone and can be easily misconstrued. Almost everyone should find that they are on the phone at least three or four times a day.

2. Drive constant change

Some people view change as a negative, inconvenient thing. Something that suggests we got it wrong the first time around and are therefore going back to the drawing board. That cannot be the Inbound way.

Change is critical, particularly in a rapidly moving industry like ours. As Darwin said, it is not the fittest that survive, but the most adaptive. If a month passes without the business making various significant changes then we’re not pushing ourselves hard enough. Everyone in the company should therefore not only embrace change when it comes, but actively seek out changes of their own.

3. Play your role in creating the right Inbound atmosphere

Inbound are a diverse mix of people and personalities, and we want to see these personalities brought to work. Whether that’s through putting on some tunes, popping out for some sugary treats or helping to organise a company activity, it’s up to everyone to be conscious of the impact they can have on the working environment.

4. Be adventurous, passionate and ambitious

At Inbound we are building a team of A players. Everybody must have the skills and the ambition to become the best in the world at their “one thing”. We want people to think big. If your goal is merely to be good rather than the best then Inbound is not for you. Be clear on what it is that you want to master and communicate that ambition to all around you.

5. Take ownership

We want you to be autonomous and fully own your area. With autonomy, however, comes accountability. We expect everyone to take risks and make mistakes, but we also expect the person to take responsibility for those mistakes. One thing we never do is pass responsibility over to someone else. We must each be the solution to our own problems.

6. Always find time for personal development, growth and learning

Learning will never feel like a priority. In any given day there will be client tasks due, emails to send and phone calls to answer that will all feel more pressing. However, you must somehow find time for your own development and learning. If you’re lucky there will be a way to do it on the job, but for most of us it will require an amount of time out of hours, whether that’s by reading a book at night or doing a spot of blogging when we wake up in the morning. If you require any training or resources to be purchased then Inbound will, where possible, cover the associated costs.

7. Build a supportive team through great communication

You spend more time with your colleagues than you do with anyone else in the world. It’s therefore essential that we all play a positive and supportive role in one another’s lives.

Always consider other people’s workload as well as your own and if someone is struggling then look for ways to help. Furthermore, if a person is ever experiencing personal difficulties then let them know you are there for them. We are a team and must do all that we can to support one another.

In the event that you are ever unhappy with a colleague then (*other than in exceptional circumstances) please communicate your concerns to that person directly and honestly. Don’t ever bottle things up or vent them to others behind the persons back. Sit down with that person and address the issue politely but directly.

* For particularly serious or sensitive issues it might not be appropriate to sit down with the person in question, in which case you may sit down with your line manager.

8. Watch the pennies

As a company there’s lots that we want to do and to have. Some of it is essential, but very often we can achieve the same results through a bit of resourcefulness and creativity. If each person can always do their bit to keep every cost to a minimum then in the long term that low cost base will be the key to our security, resilience and ability to pay above-market wages.

9. Focus on results

The most successful people in any company are those that understand the commercial value that they bring to both the client and the company itself. Fundamental to this is to understand that tasks, in themselves, are meaningless; it is all about results:
– When we design a website, it doesn’t matter how hard we worked or how pretty we think it looks. The only questions that matter are is the client happy and has the engagement or conversion rate improved? If the answer to any of these questions is no then our work is not complete.
– When we send out a press release, it doesn’t matter how much research we performed or how creative we feel the headline was. The only questions that matter are did it attract exposure, traffic and links. If the answer to all of this is no then, once again, our work is not complete.

Marketing is an innately uncertain endeavour so it can be tempting to search for excuses, but ultimately we must put ourselves in the shoes of the customer and ask the question – Would you pay £xxxx for something that achieved nothing? How would you feel if you bought a TV and arrived home to discover it was nothing but an empty cardboard box?

10. Critique and challenge everything

There is no value in telling someone that what they’ve done is good. They might like you for a moment, but ultimately you have provided them with nothing. Play devil’s advocate constantly and be grateful to those who do the same for you.

11. Snoop and interrogate

Understand that brilliant marketing is rarely the creation of new ideas. As Steve Jobs said “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”

Interrogate your clients, your suppliers and most importantly, the competition constantly. This ongoing research is the single most important element to your growth and learning.

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